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Hiatt Puts a Rock Edge Back in Song : Pop music: His gentler phase is taking a back seat with his new album, 'Perfectly Good Guitar.'

September 07, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Hiatt once was known primarily as a brilliantly acerbic rocker in the classic angry-young-man vein.

Then he got happily remarried, swore off alcohol, settled down and made a series of slightly gentler, semi-autobiographical records centering around recovery and newfound contentment that established him an image as a mature family man.

So now that he's turned 41 and celebrated his seventh wedding anniversary, what's Hiatt doing making an album like the new "Perfectly Good Guitar," not just his most boldly rocking record in more than a decade, but one that lyrically trades in tranquillity for an overriding sense of classic rock restlessness?

"You mean this is my midlife crisis record?" interrupts Hiatt, cutting to the chase. "Is this my red Ferrari and the young blond woman? Yes! "

As an afterthought, he adds, "And my wife approves."

So does his teen-age stepson, Rob, who was instrumental in influencing Hiatt's current turn back toward the more raucous by playing records by alternative, guitar-oriented bands like Dinosaur Jr. around the house.

"He got me listening to all these new bands that have been coming out the last two or three years," says Hiatt, who appears tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and Wednesday at the Roxy. "I kinda got charged up listening to this new crop. You know, I'm a rock fan, so I always perk up when rock's rockin', you know what I mean?"

In fact, after now-15-year-old Rob asked for Faith No More's "Angel Dust" album for his birthday last year, Dad Hiatt was so impressed with the resulting purchase that he called on that project's producer, Matt Wallace, to handle his own new record.

Hiatt even threw caution to the wind and charged Wallace with putting a backup band together. Among the producer's finds were some young rockers who'd never done studio sessions before, such as guitar player Mike Ward of the group School of Fish. Ward is also part of Hiatt's new touring band, as are a couple of ex-Cracker members.

"I knew I wanted to do something different," explains Hiatt. "Besides my stepson figuring in the equation, getting involved with the Little Village thing (the "supergroup" he recorded and played with last year) shook out some cobwebs or something too. Maybe it was that idea of a group again that got me wound up. Maybe I was kind of drifting toward singer-songwriter land.

"People have asked, well, are you trying to recapture something? Hell, I don't know, maybe so. It just felt like it was time to start rocking again. I'm in very much of an outward phase, musically speaking. Maybe these last few records have been a little more inward-turning, more self-assessment.

"The last three records seemed to be of a piece, and it was apparently something I needed to write about, but it kind of got finished with 'Stolen Moments.' I said my piece, and it was time to do something else."

Hiatt remains a singer-songwriter's singer-songwriter, and even surrounded here by a small battery of noisy youngsters, can clearly still be heard in the happy din as one of the most gifted tunesmiths in American pop.

Hiatt's prodigious songwriting is further celebrated in a new collection titled "Love Gets Strange: The Songs of John Hiatt," a Rhino Records compilation that brings together his tunes recorded by Rosanne Cash, the Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Nick Lowe and many more. Hiatt had no input into the project and isn't sure why some well-known covers were included while others weren't, but counts himself "pretty flattered" by the tribute.

Meanwhile, whither, if anywhere, is Little Village, the group that also included Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner and only issued one weak-selling album in 1992 before the Villagers headed back to respective solo careers?

"We were four egomaniacs with inferiority complexes," laughs Hiatt. "It was tense a lot of the time. You know, hindsight's 20/20, but I kinda wish we'd yelled and cussed and spit at each other and had a few fights and cleared the air and got on with it. But we didn't. We were so careful to not step on each other's toes, to a fault.

"But it's a real special band. Something happens when the four of us play that we can't get anywhere else. It's like dope. But I guess like dope it doesn't come free," he chuckles.

"We went off on a hunt with that album, looking for virgin territory. What's that saying? We couldn't find the forest for the trees. We made a real interesting record, but it was just a little too thoughtful at the end of the day. I would've liked it to have some more abandon to it, just letting it rip.

"I personally think there's a great rock record there for us to make. When we did our last tour of Europe last summer, it was like the greatest rock 'n' roll band I've ever heard. When we parted last summer, everybody was saying, 'We need to make another one.' I think we probably will."

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